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  • The “Mop-up” Work of Theory Anthologies: Theorizing the Discipline and the Disciplining of Theory
  • David B. Downing (bio)

Few people who are not actually practitioners of a mature science [or English department?] realize how much mop-up work of this sort a paradigm leaves to be done or quite how fascinating such work can prove in the execution.

—Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (24)

I argue that paradigms should be seen, not as the ideal form of scientific inquiry, but rather an arrested social movement in which the natural spread of knowledge is captured by a community that gains relative advantage by forcing other communities to rely on its expertise to get what they want.

—Steve Fuller, Thomas Kuhn (36)

The Double Bind of Theory Anthologies

Every contemporary anthology of theory confronts an institutional double bind: they must inevitably do two things at once, both of which are mutually contradictory. On the one hand, many of the theoretical essays included in the anthology tend to challenge, cross, or disrupt disciplinary borders; on the other, anthologizing itself cannot avoid its essentially disciplinary function. Much of what counts for theoretical discourse implicitly, if not explicitly, offers a critique of traditional academic disciplines. Selecting, reproducing, and contextualizing a set of theoretical essays in an anthology serves to “discipline” those same theories. The “theory canon” supposedly represents a set of paradigmatic essays exemplifying specific schools and methods of theory. The essays themselves often resist the constraining dimensions of the methodological parameters that supposedly warrant their inclusion [End Page 129] as representative instances of the “schools” of thought under which rubric they have been anthologized in the first place. In short, many theories critique the normal practices of traditional disciplines while the anthologies themselves serve to discipline the theories. This disciplinary double bind is the characteristic condition of the production and dissemination of anthologies of theory.

In this essay I would like to consider the efforts to anthologize literary and cultural theory as a special instance of textbook production. When combined with textbooks in primary, secondary, and higher education, anthologies provide the institutional resources to regulate disciplinary practices by representing the objects and methods of specific sub-disciplines within the field of English studies. Thus, a writing handbook, or an introduction to literature textbook, or an American literature anthology, or a theory anthology often define by default, if not by explicit articulation, the subject matter for specific specialties. Indeed, a number of recent critical studies have come to recognize the significance of textbook production as one of the principle means for creating and sustaining distinct academic disciplines. 1 As W. Ross Winterowd contends: “It is simply and undeniably the case that textbooks for English classes are massively influential, establishing the canon or reinforcing canonical traditions, instilling attitudes toward literature and language, and determining how both literature and composition will be taught” (34). The determining effect of a textbook proceeds from its positive presentation of the status and procedures of a given normal practice. David Bleich explains that “most textbooks—physical science, social science, humanities, and writing—retain one feature in common: the presentation takes place in the discourse of direct instruction. A textbook is assumed to tell students what is the case, what they should do when they have to write essays or other kinds of papers . . . . The ‘voices’ of science and writing textbooks are declarative and directive. Knowledge as textbooks represent it is not contingent on the experiences of the readership” (16).

Of course, anthologies of theory do not have the same wide circulation as do general textbooks for first and second year undergraduate students. But theory anthologies often serve as textbooks for upper division undergraduate and graduate English courses in literary and cultural theory, just as literary anthologies serve as textbooks for survey courses. They, therefore, tend on the one hand to partake of the “declarative and directive” explication of theoretical knowledge as an identifiable disciplinary terrain with its respective methods and objects of study, while simultaneously including essays [End Page 130] that critique and resist the “declarative and directive” modes of explication and knowledge. 2 Furthermore, some of the leading anthologies of theory explicitly present themselves as providing the...

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pp. 129-150
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